A few days ago I read a book called Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. The main character, a boy named Brewster, has the involuntary ability to take others’ injuries and pain onto himself… including their emotional pain. (Bruiser, get it??) As if absorbing everybody’s skinned knuckles and twisted ankles wasn’t enough, Brewster also takes on their rage, their grief, their worry. But there’s a defense mechanism: Brewster only absorbs people’s pain if he cares about them. The story follows Brewster as he meets twins Brontë and Tennyson, and begins to let both of them into his heart. Life is suddenly richer and fuller, but also more difficult and more painful.
The writing is fantastic. It’s told from the point of view of four different characters: the twins, Brewster’s little brother Cody, and Brewster himself. Each POV is written a little differently: Brontë chapters are told in past tense, and tend toward dramatic foreshadowing, reflecting her more reflective, sensitive perspective. Her twin brother Tennyson’s are told in present tense, quick and to the point: Tennyson is focused on the moment. Cody’s chapters are a peek into a nine-year-old’s mind… so basically whatever comes into his head. And Brewster’s chapters are in free verse.
The main antagonist of Bruiser is Brewster and Cody’s abusive uncle. But he’s not the main source of the problem, really: Brewster’s strange ability is. Even caring about Brontë and Tennyson opens him up to whole new worlds of pain. As they introduce him to their family and friends, Brewster needs to decide if he’ll let all these new people into his heart. Because caring about them comes with a price.
And that’s where things start to get interesting, because that’s not just true for Brewster. It’s true for us, too. Friendship opens us up to a lot of joy and love, but when we love someone, we also share their pain. When a coworker has a sick child, or when a friend is stressed about a relationship, we pick up on that. Deeply empathetic people or highly sensitive people, especially, may start to feel overwhelmed by all these “secondhand emotions”. How can anything be all right if this person you love is so, so sad? And if people all over the world are hurt and grieving and bitter, how can anything ever be all right?
The answer isn’t to shut everyone out (surprise!). As Shusterman writes,
“What’s the point of living if you’re going to hate the world? Guard your heart if you have to, but don’t shut it away.”
But on the flip side, we can’t take on everyone’s pain: we can’t fix everything. That’s a bit above my pay grade, and as a Christian, I’d say someone else has already taken on that job, anyway. Instead, I think our job, here on this broken, beautiful world, is to share the pain. Enter into it, but don’t try to take it all on yourself. Just be present in that dark place with the one you love.
At the end of the novel (spoiler alert), Brontë and Tennyson realize that Brewster has been taking away not only their injuries, but also their negative emotions. As gratifying as it was to have all that darkness drain away, they make a conscious decision to hang onto that pain, to embrace it, even. For Brewster’s sake, but also for their own. Because it’s an undeniable part of our experience, and to live without pain is to live only half awake. Caring is sharing both pain and joy.